the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Statements of Authority in Sainte-Chapelle

Posted by gninja on October 24, 2006


In looking at Sainte-Chapelle, we can think about earlier discussions of the force of the individual in “inventing” or driving forward an artistic form. While art historians working in the wake of Panofsky debated the role of Abbot Suger in establishing what we have come to call Gothic architecture, we can discuss the role of Louis IX in shaping Gothic art. Abbot Suger used rhetoric and the imposition of a false dialectic to give the appearance of coherence and intentionality to the structure being built under his direction. In so doing, he provided a network of theological and linguistic support for the very new form of architecture seen in St-Denis. The result is a circular form of support in which the power of the Church is established by this imprssive new structure, and general acceptance of this new structure is guaranteed by the language of theology deployed in Suger’s rhetoric.

But the monarchy of France did not simply allow itself to be dominated by the Church, at least not in the PR battle waged in monumental art. We can find a counterpart to the figure of Abbot Suger in the figure of King Louis IX. As a ruler, Louis IX appears to have been aware of the role of architecture and art in issuing statements of authority. He was a patron of the arts, and Sainte-Chapelle (pictured above) is one of the greatest testaments to his (or, perhaps, his architects’) acuity in the associative power of architecture. As argued in a comprehensive article by Daniel Weiss, Sainte-Chapelle consolidates imagery of royal and religious authority–particularly that of the Throne of Wisdom–thus declaring the royal and religious authority of the commanding occupant of the chapel. In the patronage of Louis IX, then, we see an analogy with the language of Abbot Suger. Whereas the former’s patronage established a standard visual repertoire of authrotative royal imagery, the latter’s language ensured the communication of religious authority through the appearance of a new kind of architecture.

Our view of this matter however, is altered slightly by the following passage in Keith Moxey ‘s “Panofsky’s Concept of ‘Iconology’ and the Problem of Interpretation in the History of
Art” (New Literary History 17.2 (1986). 265-274):

“The focus on the ‘intention’ of the work of art assigns it a ‘terminal’ role in the life of culture, a location representing a synthesis of the ideas current in the culture of the patron or patrons who commissioned it. It ignores the life of the work of art after it has entered a social context. By concentrating on the way in which the work of art ‘reflects’ the life of its times, the preoccupation with the ‘intention’ fails to recognize the function of the work of art as an actor in the development of cultural attitudes and therefore as an agent of social change.”

I think what’s useful here is the notion that whether or not Louis IX set about establishing a visual program to communicate and legitimize his authority, the result was indeed an artistic/architectural language that was used as such, both by him and by kings to follow (as evinced by the various copies of the chapel). Indeed, the associations Weiss makes between Sainte-Chapelle and Solomonic imagery may not even have gained currency until after Louis IX’s canonization, following his successful reign. In other words, the power of the imagery of Sainte-Chapelle and its status as an architectural model for the statement of royal authority depended on both historical associations and current events. Regardless of the original purpose of Sainte-Chapelle, it was used as an instrument in the contest for primacy between the State and the Church.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: